Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Aug 30, 2013
02:19 PM
Stage Write

With its Delusional Characters, APT's 'All My Sons' Reveals an American Dream Unrealized

With its Delusional Characters, APT's 'All My Sons' Reveals an American Dream Unrealized

PHOTO BY ZANE WILLIAMS

Jonathan Smoots, Marcus Truschinski and Kelsey Brennan in 'All My Sons'

Soldiers who’ve lost appendages in combat talk about the concept of the phantom limb—the missing leg that still seems to twinge and ache, even though it’s no longer there. The Keller family, the clan at the center of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, are suffering a collective case of phantom limb—their eldest son, Larry, a fighter pilot who never came back from World War II, hovers daily over their Midwestern backyard like a shadow on a cloudy day.

Of course, Larry’s not the only cloud hanging over the Kellers, although you’d never know it to see Joe (Jonathan Smoots) smoking his pipe and joking around with the neighbor kids. In American Players Theatre’s staging of Miller’s classic (playing up the hill through September 28), we’re given not just an indictment of the business-first American Dream, but a searing picture of a desperately doomed and deluded family that’s about to implode under the weight of their self-imposed illusions.

Joe’s trying to escape a rather inconvenient secret—his company supplied the U.S. Army with faulty cylinders that sent pilots to their graves, and while he was exonerated, his mousy business partner’s currently rotting in jail for the crime. His wife Kate (Sarah Day) clings defiantly to the belief that her dead son is still alive. Their eldest son Chris (Marcus Truschinski) wants to move beyond it all--by marrying his dead brother’s spirited fiancé, Anne (Kelsey Brennan).

It’s fascinating to see the ways in which director William Brown jostles the scenes of blissful Americana—the backyard lemonades, the metal lawn furniture, the constant-but-never-realized plans of drinks and dinners out—against the uncomfortable truths that lie beneath the Kellers’ existence.  Characters tip-toe around each other and refuse to address their issues, deflecting in turn with anger and pleading, smiles and backslaps.

“You’re really great at ignoring things,” Chris affectionately says to Joe at one point during an otherwise innocuous conversation. He has no idea what a perceptive comment he’s just made.

As the Keller’s jovial patriarch, Smoots works his considerable charisma as a man whose earnest gravitas literally bullies people into liking him and seeing things his way—he very nearly convinces George (Rob Fagin), his biz partner’s sad-sack son, that the evidence he thinks he has on Joe isn’t real. When he finally reaches the point where he can no longer ignore the truth, Smoots’s anger and anguish are palpable—even as he’s reaching for yet another shred of justification. Day’s an even more formidable force of nature, using glares, a bullish stride and even her neighbor’s astrology charts to cling to her own self-delusions.   

Day's and Smoots’s performances are so strong, they overpower some of the others—specifically, Truschinski, who normally commands the stage. Here, his Chris is so flat and easygoing that it’s a little hard to see why a strong-willed spitfire like Anne would even be attracted to him, let alone join in the family’s mass delusion. 

When it debuted in 1947, eventually winning a well-deserved Tony award for Miller, the sting of All My Sons came, as it did in so many of Miller’s plays, from its indictment of the blind pursuit of profit. (Big, big emphasis on the “blind.”) That message isn’t nearly as startling and potent today as it was back then, but it doesn’t take anything away from the power of APT’s performance. As a portrait of the lengths to which we’ll go to convince ourselves of what we need to believe, it’s as affecting as it ever was.  

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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